Have you ever wondered how Wallace & Gromit and the works of Laika are created? It’s all thanks to a little animation technique known as claymation. Figurines made out of clay come to life, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for animators. But what is claymation and how do you know if making your next film out of what’s basically Play-Doh is right for you? It’s time to mold your mind with information about the wonderful world of clay animation.

EXAMINING CLAY ANIMATION MOVIES

The beginning of claymation movies

Compared to other types of animation, claymation movies are actually quite recent. The first feature-length film to be made out of cel animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, came out in 1937. It would take over 60 years for the first claymation movie, Chicken Run, to come out in 2000. However, the art form has a long, storied history that goes back much further than the new millennium.

CLAYMATION DEFINITION

What is claymation?

Claymation is a form of stop-motion animation where each animated piece, including characters and some backgrounds, is constructed out of a malleable substance, which is typically plasticine clay. Each frame is recorded on film and then played back in quick succession to give the appearance of movement.

The plasticine is generally wrapped around a wire skeleton, known as an armature. It’s arranged on a set where it’s moved one small portion at a time. To create the appearance of continuity, objects may remain lit and correctly placed at all times.

Popular Claymation Movies:

  • Chicken Run
  • Coraline
  • Monkeybone
  • ParaNorman
  • The Boxtrolls
  • Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

So why don’t you see as many claymation movies as traditional cel animated ones? Well, as you can see from this video from Insider, it’s a lot of work. And we mean… a lot of work.

How Claymation Movies Are Made  •  Insider

Not only does every character, animal, and building have to be created, often resulting in hundreds of models, but then those figures have to be meticulously moved ever so slightly while each individual frame is captured. It’s a ton of work, but as Laika and Aardman Animations have shown, the result has led to some of the best animated movies ever.

WHAT is Claymation in Film History?

History of claymation movies

The first feature-length, theatrically-released clay animation film may have been Chicken Run, but the art form actually dates back to 1897. This was when an oil-based modeling clay, known as plasticine, would be created. Plasticine would go on to become the standard claymation clay used for most films. This was also around the time cel animation was beginning to develop, but for decades, claymation remained on the fringes of the animation movement.

The first claymation animation film that’s survived is called The Sculptor’s Nightmare from 1908. The short film follows members of a political club arguing about who will replace Theodore Roosevelt as president and whose bust they will need to put up next. The short film combines elements of live action with claymation.

The Sculptor’s Nightmare  •  Library of Congress

A short film that fully utilizes claymation is more along the lines of 1926’s Long Live the Bull from Joseph Sunn. It tells the story of a young man willing to fight a bull to impress and win over his beloved.

Long Live the Bull  •  What Could Go Wrong?

In 1955, the world would be introduced to Gumby, a clay-animated, humanoid figure who would spawn a couple films and even a video game. In 1972, Aardman Animations was founded, which created clay-based segments for television shows.

The company was even responsible for creating the music video for Peter Gabriel’s iconic “Sledgehammer.”

Sledgehammer  •  Peter Gabriel

Aardman Animations paved the way for what claymation would become, eventually creating the Wallace & Gromit series of short films before making history with Chicken Run.

The animation studio Laika, known for such films as Coraline and ParaNorman, would advance the traditional clay animation technique.

Instead of creating the characters by hand, the studio utilized 3D printing to develop thousands of potential facial expressions for the characters. They would then swap out one facial appearance for the next, creating a smooth, fluid motion as if the characters were talking.

How Technology is Changing Claymation Movies

The process of making claymation movies is pretty similar to stop motion animation. The main difference mostly comes down to what your characters and sets are made out of.

CLAYMATION MEANING

Steps for making clay animation films

Before you get started, it’s important to understand how time-consuming clay animation can be. And depending on what kind of artist you are, you may need to get a team together to help you design your figurines. That process alone can eat up days of preparation, as evidenced in this video breaking down how to make claymation movies.

How to Make Claymation Movies  •  Miniature Hobbyist

But with enough sweat and tears, the result can be a one-of-a-kind film that looks unlike anything else at the festival you submit it to. Here are the basic steps in getting your next clay animation film off the ground.

Step One: Gather your materials

First, you should acquire everything you need to build your sets and models. The popular choice is the modeling clay Plasticine, which you can typically find at any arts and crafts store. You want to avoid substances like Play-Doh because it dries out too quickly.

Step Two: Storyboard your plot

Claymation relies on numerous precise movements. You can save yourself a lot of time and hassle when you actually get to filming when you know exactly what needs to happen in each frame. StudioBinder’s storyboard creator allows you to import scripts to automatically see how many scenes you need to map out.

Step Three: Avoid influence from outside factors

There are numerous outside influences that can impact your clay animation project. Dust can settle on your sets when you’re away. Someone could walk into the room and accidentally bump into your set, throwing everything off. Set up your project in a space you can control. But, as any filmmaker will tell you, you can’t control everything. 

Step Four: Get the timing right

Any type of stop motion animation will require a ton of one-frame shots. Even relatively short films can still consist of thousands of frames. This is why many filmmakers utilize a technique called twos or doubles. This occurs when two frames are shot each time you turn on the camera.

Of course, there are other steps like any other film, such as writing the script and recording audio. But with dedication, you might end up with something like this Oscar-nominated short titled, Negative Space.

Claymation Movies  •  Negative Space

Claymation animation is hard work, which is why you won’t see it in theaters that often. But it’s a unique art form that deserves to be preserved and makes for a useful tool in any animator’s arsenal.

UP NEXT

Animation storyboard examples

Storyboarding is a critical aspect of any film production, including claymation. Before you put your clay models on camera, you want to make sure you map out exactly what’s going to happen in each scene so that you don’t end up having to go back to re-film certain segments. Check out storyboard examples from animated and live-action films to see what yours should look like.

Up Next: Animation storyboards →
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  • Mike Bedard is a graduate of UCLA. He’s a screenwriter based out of Los Angeles who’s written several short films as well as sketch comedy for various theaters around LA. He’s also written articles for sites like Cracked and Ranker.

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